Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Most Movies Boil Down to a Boy, a Girl, and a Planet-Destroying Romulan Space Drill

Star Trek
In the theater

The Research Department and I are going to do a much wider-ranger "Trek" think piece some time this week, since the franchise evidently has new life. But before we did that, I wanted to get my own thoughts about the new "reboot" across. It's a genuinely weird feeling. I'm glad that people are excited about "Star Trek" again. But I was baffled by the new film, which barely seemed acquainted with "The Next Generation" and "Deep Space Nine." What does it say that among my people, the high point of Star Trek was the throwaway reference to Admiral Archer's beagle?

Much of the new movie is prevented from taking off because of what Ebert cunningly calls the weight of "narrative housekeeping," explaining why it is that we have a slightly different-looking Enterprise with a more assertive Uhura, cuter Chekov, and now both New Spock and Spock Classic. And I accept this -- the box office numbers seem to bear out that I was totally wrong and people really do want to see these same old characters again. That's what most folks apparently want out of "Star Trek," as wrong as it feels to me. The most effective part of J.J. Abrams' film is the very end where they finally get everybody into the right uniforms and in the right places on the bridge. When Kirk's wearing yellow and Spock's wearing blue and they're running around in a matte painting, it feels like 1967 for a second, and that's exciting if hardly progress. If they do a whole movie in that style it might be really good -- if they find some way to give the plot modern-day relevance.

"Star Trek" as it first was on TV had mostly cardboard characters; it was about ethical dilemmas. 23rd-century ethical dilemmas with surprising application to 1960's ones. The best of the film series with the original cast merged nostalgic affection for the characters with new issues stories: II, III (sorta), IV, VI (sorta again). All the "Next Gen" features knew that they needed to pay lip service to the idea of addressing modern morality through sci-fi storytelling.

This new one doesn't try, at all. It's about a big drill in space, an angry bald Romulan guy who's going to kill a bunch of Vulcans and humans because he bears them an intense family grudge. That's the precise same plot of the 2002 flop Star Trek: Nemesis. Even down to the bald Romulans. With tattoos. The fact that Abrams doesn't think anyone will notice or care that he replicated the plot and one of the MacGuffins of the last movie, an embarrassing failure, is telling. This movie isn't about remaking "Star Trek" creatively, it's all about bringing it into line with modern movie franchises in terms of cross-promotions, product placements, and "multi-platform leveragability." As a boy Kirk had a Nokia cell phone in his parent's car? Well okay then.

In a way the same problems the original motion picture Star Trek had repeat on this one. That one, an unforeseen comeback story for a beloved cult hit that had been dormant for just the right amount of time, burned way too much of its running time on long slow tracking shots of the Enterprise, fetishizing the ship fans had dreamed about seeing again for so long. But at least it had a story that tried to tie in with present-day issues and presented its characters with universal human moral debates. The new Star Trek has no character development, merely plot points. The heroes run through CGI travails like avatars in a video game; the short, hypercut scenes where they discuss what they've learned might as well be those bits you would press the "A" button to skip were you really playing a game.

Then again, the cast except for Karl Urban is really good and the dynamic between Chris Pine's Shatner and Zachary Quinto's Nimoy has the potential to be something special, particularly with the way the altered timeline of the new movie has changed and will change Spock's character. (#1 positive change: More macking with Uhura in this reality.) I will have to withhold ultimate judgement until we see what the macroscopic effect on the franchise will be. If they make a new TV series in a few years' time with the special effects expertise and slick look of this film, but with at least a little bit of Shakespearean scenery-chewing and ethical quandaries we of the old school have come to expect, that would be a positive thing.

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